September 25, 2009
Rick Moore and his growing church hope to implement their big plans in a small way. The pastor and his congregation are part of an emerging shift away from single-location megachurches toward multiple site churches that hope to bring a best-of-both-worlds approach to ministry.
These multi-site churches, also known as campus or satellite churches, typically consist of a central worship service from which the sermon is transmitted or streamed to smaller congregations that can be right next door or on the other side of the world.
The core concept is to provide as many people as possible with a strong sermon message while moving away from the impersonal, humongous single-site church - such as Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, where 44,000 people meet each Sunday in a former NBA arena.
"It's almost like me starting a church plant with 150 people, but with a paid staff and resources of a 1,000-person church," said Moore, who is the satellite pastor at Community Christian Church in southwest Ohio. His congregation meets at a high school about 12 miles from the "mother church" location. Unlike many multi-site situations, that close proximity allows the two churches to stagger their start time so the sermon can be delivered live at both sites.
"When we started the second campus (in 2008) it was a smaller church of about 50 or 60 members," Moore said. "Now we're averaging over 150."
That growth spurt fits with a new report appearing in the October issue of Outreach magazine that lists the 100 largest U.S. churches based on attendance figures compiled by Lifeway Research in Nashville. Lakewood leads the list, as it did in 2008, but the next 10 largest all are multiple sites.
"Multiple sites are the new normal for fast-growing and large churches. Lakewood is the exception. The next 10 all have multiple sites," says Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay. "They're contemporary, aggressively evangelistic and evangelical and they're moving beyond the 'big box' megachurch model."
Several factors contribute to the growth increase of the multi-site churches, said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary and co-author of "Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America's Megachurches."
"Most likely it is the medium-sized megachurches that are saying, ‘We need to grow ... but because of the financial state we're in we can't just build from a 2,000-seat building to one that is 5,000 or 10,000 seats,' " Thumma said. "So instead they're opting for the multi-site thing which has satellite campuses in a theater here or a high school there. Then they are either linked by direct feeds or you run the earlier service over on a DVD.
No two multi-site churches operate the same, but often each satellite campus will have its own service wrapped around the televised message.
"The have their own praise band and often their own campus pastor," Thumma said.
Moore, for instance, handles pastoral care at his campus, while also giving the broadcasted sermon once a month in place of the senior pastor.
"Anyone who comes to our Trenton campus, I'm the one they see and talk to," he said.
Moore said the church plan is to increase from one campus to two next year by touting the benefits of convenience.
"What we've said is, it's one thing for you to come to church and like it so much that you're willing to drive 30 minutes," he said. "It's another to get your next-door neighbor to load their kids and come. So we want to produce the same quality stuff at our campus so you can drive 10 minutes instead of 30. As we reach out to the county we want to move to them, not be a church that expects them to come to us."
Thumma said similar techniques seem to be working nationwide.
"On one hand, it's a great sort of growth strategy," he said. "Even in our 2008 survey of megachurches, those with satellite churches had significantly larger attendance than those without."
Satellite churches don't have to pile on building debt and are good for volunteerism, Thumma said, explaining that each additional campus means that many more people can be plugged in as greeters, worship team members and ministry leaders.
"It gives people a place to use their callings," Thumma said. "The (single-site) megachurch limits that."
An estimated five million Americans a week attend about 1,300 megachurches. A megachurch usually is defined as having weekly attendance of 2,000 or more, but even a church of 800 like Community Christian Church ranks in the top 2 percent of U.S. church attendance, Thumma said.
The satellite system may seem too radical for some, especially older church-goers more comfortable with the traditional format of a pastor speaking on the stage in front of them instead of a screen overhead. But multi-site growth shows that expectations are changing.
"In our increasingly technologically-advanced society, people are quite familiar with looking at screens and seeing a visual representation of a person and thinking of that as reality," Thumma said. "So we're developing people who can see an image on a screen and not think of it as only two-dimensional. That is increasingly the way people communicate with each other. You see an icon on Facebook and it's, ‘Yeah, I know that's a real person.' "
There may be some drawbacks to the megachurch/multi-church method. Megachurch-goers volunteer less and give less money, according to a survey conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary and Leadership Network. The survey of nearly 25,000 people who attend 12 U.S. megachurches was conducted from January through August 2008.
"Studying the date on megachurch attenders, if there is a difference between people at satellites vs. those in single-location churches, my initial sense is there would perhaps be fewer mechanisms at satellites for commitment to supporting the overall church," Thumma said. "They don't have a commitment to that entity but to the small group."
Those concerns aside, Thumma thinks megachurches are meeting a need not met in more mainline churches, at least for those age 45 and under. The Hartford study found that almost two-thirds (62 percent) of adults who attend Protestant megachurches are younger than 45, compared to 35 percent of U.S. Protestant congregations overall.
"I believe (multi-site churches) can be a good thing for those who want to have intimacy in a smaller group or for people who want the experience of a small church-type worship where you know everybody's name, but who also want the quality and giftedness of a large congregation where there's a famous pastor and great choirs," he said.
And growth numbers involving megachurches seem to show they are relatively healthy in comparison to churches as a whole.
The third edition of the Faith Communities Today Study of 2,527 U.S. congregations, released last week, finds the nation's Catholic, Protestant and other world religions suffering. Only 19 percent reported they are in excellent financial health, down from 31 percent in 2000. Less than half (48 percent) could report at least 2 percent growth in worship attendance, down from 58 percent in 2005.
It's a different story at Moore's church.
"We haven't taken that next step yet (to add campuses), but it is the plan," he said.